Friday, September 24, 2010

Sukkot: Doing "The Wave" (Or Why The Rabbi Says It's Okay to Pray for Your Favorite Sports Teams)

Chag Sameach everyone - wishing you a Happy Sukkot.  Sukkot, of course, is the weeklong fall festival meant to celebrate the ancient harvest season, and recall the unique dwellings that our ancestors lived in as they wandered through the desert.

Sukkot is also the season dedicated to the waving of the lulav and etrog.  For video of people shaking the lulav and etrog, click here.  And if you really can't find your way to a sukkah over the holiday to shake the lulav and etrog, well...I guess you could click here to do it virtually with your iphone.

Our ancient Israelite ancestors shook the lulav and etrog primarily as a kind of a rain dance.  The rainy season begins in Israel during this time of year.  And our ancestors knew that for a healthy harvest next summer, the land needed exactly the right amount of rain in the coming winter.  The shaking of the lulav and etrog is probably an expression of their desire for a healthy dose of rain.

We are like our ancestors: we don't know what the coming year will bring for us either.  Will it be a comfortable and bountiful one, or will it be more austere?  Will we be blessed with life and strength to make it through the winter to the springtime?

That being said, waving the lulav and etrog isn't really about asking for rain anymore.  At least not to me.  Because - frankly - I don't really believe that God is going to make it rain just because I ask God to.  Rain happens for scientific/meteorological reasons. 

But there's a part of me that still needs a reason to wave the lulav...for the ritual to make sense to me, I have to be asking/hoping for something.

Now I suppose I could (should!!) be waving the lulav for peace in the Middle East, or a cure for cancer.

But instead, I'll be waving the lulav and etrog in honor of my Philadelphia Phillies, who look like they could be cruising toward their third World Series appearance in as many years.  (Tut tut tut...knock on wood...)

Now I's sort of inappropriate for a clergyperson to encourage people to actively pray for their favorite sports team to win.  That's not really what God is, after all.  God doesn't take sides in Heaven.  God isn't a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan.  God is God, and it cheapens the Holy One to think that God is rooting on any one team in particular.

That being said: I'll still be waving my lulav this year for the Phillies.  I'll do it because this is the time of year, after getting through the High Holy Days, and as we prepare for the onset of Fall and Winter, when we are searching for some kind of reaffirmation...some verifiable sense that the world is in order, that our place in it is secure, and that will be blessed to live through to see another (baseball) season.

That reaffirmation can come from any number of sources.  We can find it after having a spiritual experience in nature, or within a new or renewed relationship with a loved one. 

But can't it also be found in sports?  Think about the incredible high that we experience when our team wins a big game.  It's not just a sense of jubilation because we won.  It's also because - for a brief instant - the world makes sense.  It is aligned as it should be.  The good guys (our team) won.  Life is good. 

This reaffirmation is fleeting, to be sure.  The glow from a big win only lasts a little while.  But here's the good news: so does the sting of defeat.  Our disappointment, when a sports team loses, or when we experience a more substantial 'life setback' is also only temporary.  Because we know, deep down, that a new season - a new beginning - is always around the corner. 

So, yeah, I'm going to wave my lulav for my Phillies this year.  Because I'll hope - like I do every year around this time when they're playing well - that this will be a good year, my year, our year.  That a win for my team will be the reaffirmation I am looking for, right now, that says: all is right and good in the world...That, because of a Phillies appearance in the World Series (even I'm too humble to pray for a World Series win), I might have the strength to keep on going, with a renewed sense of hope that I'll live to the witness a new (baseball) season, and a whole new set of new beginnings once again.

Chag Sameach.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771: Minding Our Mortality

There’s the story of the man who remarks to his friend: “I’ve sure gotten old. I’ve had two bypass surgeries, a hip replacement, new knees. I’m half blind, can’t hear anything quieter than a jet engine, take 40 different medications that make me dizzy, winded, and susceptible to blackouts. I have bouts with dementia: Sheesh, I can’t even remember if I’m 26 or 86! Plus, I’ve lost all my friends….But thank God, I still have my driver’s license!”

Aging: it’s a subject that makes all of us a little uncomfortable. The word itself conjures up anxieties of potential loss: of our good looks and sharp minds, of our independence, and – eventually – of our very own lives.

In an attempt to ignore the ticking of our own internal clocks, we deny our mortality; using every trick in the book (and sometimes going to great expense as well) we hide our true age from our friends, and from ourselves.

For proof of this, one need only look as far as the August edition of Vogue, the publication’s annual issue on aging.

At first glance, I found much worthy content in the magazine. There was an impressive list of essays written by diverse contributors, all considering the different challenges of aging that women face in each decade of their lives.

What was less than impressive to me were the advertisements that appeared on the pages in between the essays. They carried with them a decidedly different message. Within the first 90 pages of the magazine, there were no fewer than eight full pages ads, along the lines of the one touting Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Cream. The copy for that ad promised “a dramatic reduction in the visible signs of aging.” And, just in case I missed the message the first time, the cream also delivers “comprehensive anti-aging like no other formula.”

Our own Jewish tradition offers a markedly different response to the question of how we are supposed to come to terms with our aging and ultimate mortality.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham was not only the first Jew of all time. He was also, according to the rabbis, the first person to ever show signs of aging. In the beginning, according to the story, human beings never aged physically. How did that come to change?

It seems that Abraham and Isaac looked remarkably alike. And as Isaac aged, he was increasingly mistaken for Abraham as they went out and about. And it got to be so confusing that Abraham got fed up. Finally he prayed that God would alter his appearance. Abraham wanted people to know which of the two of them was deserving of the respect befitting such an important communal leader and elder. God heard Abraham’s plea, and ever since – we have all been fated to physically age as we get older.

Amazing: Abraham wanted to age.

Perhaps it is not realistic for us to ever want to age, but we can’t avoid it either. We are commanded to accept it.

Today is Yom Kippur. It is the day we stand before God in judgment, unadorned by the tools that we use to hide our true age. We wait, on this day, to learn if we will be inscribed for life, or for death, in the coming year. Today is the day – the only day on the Jewish calendar, when we come face to face with our own mortality.

And so we wonder: what will the coming year have in store for us? Will it be another year of our denying the passage of time and the ticking of our own clocks? Or will we have the strength to acknowledge: that our clocks are always ticking? And that all we can do is embrace each day with gratitude, with awe, and with the commitment to improve ourselves; thankful for the gift we have been given, and charged by God to make the most of it.

On the subject of gratitude, the German writer Thomas Mann wrote: “Hold fast the time! […] Disregarded, it slips away. […] Hold every moment sacred. Give each day clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment.”

Mann teaches us that our time on earth is finite and precious: that every day is a gift. And the only way we will ever be able to appreciate that gift, and be grateful for it, is if we pause long enough to examine our lives and marvel: how wonderful it is that I am blessed to live.

Our prayerbook expresses this sentiment in seemingly mundane fashion. Daily, upon arising, we are taught to recite the blessing asher yatzar. In contemporary practice, we recite the blessing in the synagogue, where it has come to express gratitude for the health of our bodies in general.

But the passage was originally written with a different intention. The text was to be recited immediately upon using the bathroom for the first time every day. It was, and is, a vehicle for us to express gratitude to God: that all of the intricate organs, and passageways in our bodies function as they are meant to, enabling us to live in good health.

If we think about our bodies – and more broadly our lives - in these terms, it truly is a miracle that we are able to get up in the morning. And the only reasonable Jewish response to this miracle is to answer with blessing.

But reciting a simple blessing is not enough. We also have the opportunity, in expressing gratitude, to live our lives as a blessing. To realize that life each day is a gift, and to make the most of that gift by living it to the fullest, in contributing to our world, and by seeking out meaningful and enriching relationships with others.

A number of my own friends and peers in their 20s and 30s are having a hard time following this advice.

According to social scientists, my generation is caught in suspended animation somewhere in between adolescence and adulthood.

Frank Furstenberg, who studies these issues for the MacArthur Foundation, calls the notion of the onset of adulthood occurring at 18 or even 21 as positively “archaic.” Friends: we are, witnessing a massive change in American demographics.

Did you know that a quarter of all 25 year old white men are living with their parents? To be sure, some of those numbers are caused by the recession…It’s only natural in tough times for children to want to return to the safety of the nest for parental support, financial and otherwise.

But there is a larger shift at play within these numbers. By choice, my generation is increasingly delaying the start of their first “real” jobs. We are putting off saving for the future. And we are less interested in pursuing long term romantic relationships.

On one level, this is happening because my generation is being told that living to 100 is practically a sure thing. Maybe there is no real urgency to start living a “normal” adulthood. Who cares if we bum off our parents for another five years, or couch surf our way through a friend’s apartment. We have our whole lives in front of us. What’s the rush?

But on this Yom Kippur, I would respond by suggesting that my generation seems, frankly, ungrateful. Ungrateful for the gift of life it has been blessed with (which we all know might change at any time), and ungrateful for the opportunities that we have been given.

The clock is ticking for all of us. Perhaps the ticking means something different for someone who is 25, compared to one who is 75, but the clock is ticking for all of us nonetheless. Our time – our lives – are not meant to be wasted. We have the potential to live so richly: by helping others, raising families, and contributing to the health and vitality of our world. And the first step toward living that kind of meaningful life is by fostering a sense of gratitude: by finding a way to say thank you for the gift of life. Not by delaying our aging, but by embracing it.

Fostering a sense of gratitude is only one key ingredient when it comes to a compelling vision of Jewish aging. Our tradition insists that gratitude be accompanied by a profound sense of awe.

Awe is an emotion and mindset that affects the way we judge: ourselves, others, even the natural world around us. Thus Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that: “Just as the grandeur of the sun or an oak tree is not reducible to the function it fulfills…so a human being must be regarded as significant and valuable in himself or herself.”

Heschel was chiding all of those who might try to describe Mt. Everest as simply being the world’s tallest mountain. To behold Everest in all its mystery and beauty is to experience something that is far greater than any measurement.

Similarly: we transcend our statistics. We are more than a B.A. from Berkeley, or the CEO of a major company. There is nothing wrong, of course, with being proud of these personal accomplishments. But to live with a sense of awe is to be mindful of the majesty of creation: of the fact that we are far more than the summary of our resumes.

This is an important message to keep in mind as we retire. As we transition out of regular working life, we are counseled to practice a sense of awe regarding ourselves and others. We are never just the retired Vice President of So-and-so. We are individuals who can contribute in so many other unique ways - ways that transcend the outdated structure of an employer-employee relationship.

Fostering a sense of awe isn’t just about how we think of ourselves, it’s also about how we treat our bodies as we age.

There is an unfortunate tendency in our society that rewards youthfulness. We already saw how the cosmetics industry plays on this theme in its marketing. We can also see it in the disturbing trend toward the increased use, and abuse, of steroids in athletes. Older athletes abuse steroids because they are convinced that they’ll only be able to win if they trick their bodies into turning back the clock, by synthetically manipulating themselves to behave as if they were five or ten years younger.

Beyond all of the other risks associated with this kind of drug use – this behavior is a violation of the Jewish imperative to live with a sense of awe…a sense of deep and profound respect for our bodies, and the way that God created them.

We are more than our resumes at the end of our careers, and we are more than the speed of the fastball we can throw. When we forget to foster awe, we are not just misjudging others and ourselves, we are also ignoring our tradition’s teachings about how we are to age, and live, in the world.

Jewish aging begins with gratitude and with awe. But as we age, we are also commanded to turn inward – to reflect on how we have lived – so that we might repent and improve.

On this Yom Kippur, devoted so centrally to teshuvah, it is fitting to recall the words of our rabbis, who wrote that: “People act wickedly in their youth, but as they age they have the ability to perform good deeds.”

We have the ability to change. This is a central tenet of our tradition and it applies as much to the young adult as it does to the senior citizen. It is never too early, or too late, to change for the better.

Lillian Hellman, the American Jewish author, used the metaphor of a painting to describe the possibility of repentance as we age. She wrote that: “Paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible in some pictures to see the artist’s original lines: [for example] a tree will show through a woman’s dress […] That is called pentimento because the painter repented, and changed his mind.”

On this Yom Kippur, let us strive to embody both artist and canvas: that we might be blessed with the ability to consider our pasts…and then be empowered to change for the better. No matter how young, or how old: to age Jewishly means always being committed to repenting and re-painting the brush strokes of our lives.

A few years ago, the US Postal Service issued instructions to post offices around the country to improve customer service. A recent poll had indicated that Americans were frustrated because they spent too much time waiting in line to mail their packages. The centerpiece of the ensuing customer service campaign was a directive to 37,000 local post offices to remove any clocks from public view, thereby hoping that customers would be less conscious of how much time was passing while they were waiting in line.

With all due respect to those devoted civil servants in Washington, we know that that strategy doesn’t work. Hiding the clocks from our view can’t change the fact that the clocks are still ticking.

Of course the clocks don’t just tick while we wait. They tick – every second of every day – for all of us, marking out the moments and seasons of our lives, and ticking – one second closer – to our fated end.

All we can do is make a choice: we can either deny that inevitability, or accept it. On this Yom Kippur, the one day on our calendar devoted specifically to contemplating our eventual death: the choice is clear. Our age-old tradition teaches us that we should accept our mortality.

On this day, let us foster gratitude, awe, and a commitment to constantly improve ourselves. Then we shall surely be blessed: to make the most of the gifts we’ve been given, by living our lives to the fullest.

Shanah Tovah


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

John Glenn's return to space in 1998 was a watershed moment, in terms of the scientific study of aging (in space); and, more specifically, it was a remarkable celebration for our society of the limitless possibilities that older Americans might pursue even as they age. For more, click here.

There are a number of excellent books written about Judaism and aging. I recommend: A Heart of Wisdom by Susan Berrin and The Price and Privilege of Growing Old by Gunther Plaut. There are also many fine online resources, like this one from the Reconstructionist Movement.

There is no better example of our society's denial of death than the movement in favor of cryonics. Robert Ettinger's landmark 1964 book introduced the possibility to the world.

Check out The Death of Death by Neil Gillman for a comprehensive introduction to the question of Judaism and the Afterlife.

The September 2003 issue of the Jewish newsletter Sh'ma explored the connection between Yom Kippur, Death, and Meaning.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5771: Can You Hear Me Now?

Dave Barry once wrote that “The Internet is the most important development in the history of human communication…since the invention of call waiting.”

The Internet is an incredible advancement in communication. Maybe the most significant one ever! And thanks to the screens that bring the Internet to us - our phones, computers, televisions, and the list goes on – thanks to all of them, we are able to do extraordinary things.

Smartphones, as just one example, enable us to talk on the go, read the news wherever and whenever we please, and listen to our entire music collections. They even provide us with mostly accurate driving directions. Surely we could all cite other ways in which the Internet enables us to work more efficiently, and enjoy a higher quality of life.

And yet…if you’ll excuse me for saying so, the Internet is also a colossal waste of time. It tempts us with games, videos, and tweet after tweet after tweet.

It would be one thing if the worst consequence of this new virtual reality was some wasted time.

But there’s a more serious challenge that we face: the Internet is distracting us. It’s distracting us from our Jewish responsibility to improve the world. It’s distracting us from the most important people in our lives. And most disconcertingly, it’s causing us to forget who we are as individuals.

I wish I could stand here as a good role model…as one who has already mastered the appropriate way to integrate technology into my life. But alas – I, too, am stuck in an overly dependent relationship with my iphone. For me, these issues are personal. They get to the heart of my struggle, as I seek to be a better husband, father, and Jew.

On this Rosh HaShanah, my hope is that we can all help one another to silence our phones, so that we might better hear the sounding of the shofar. For the shofar harkens us back to our tradition’s virtues: of healing the world, strengthening our relationships with family and friends, and of finding and nurturing our true inner selves. In doing so, we will be newly equipped to live less distracted and more focused lives in this virtual age.

To begin, let us start this new year by seeking to be more thoughtful about the kinds of activities we engage in online.

Consider the amount of time we spend in front of screens each week. During those hours, we are IM’ing, downloading music, and updating our facebook profiles.

According to media consultant and author Clay Shirky, it’s not that all of those things are bad in and of themselves. It’s that we are not using them to their fullest tikkun olam potential.

The way Shirky sees it, we are wasting our free time unless we’re going online in order to make a difference in the world, by effectively using the tools that are available to us.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Shirky relates the story of how online political organizing permanently changed South Korea. After five years of banning American beef, an agreement was reached in April, 2008 that would have returned it to South Korean markets.

Shortly after the word spread about the agreement, protests broke out. Candlelight vigils were held for months, eventually attracting more than 100,000 protesters daily! They became the largest demonstrations in South Korean history.

What was most remarkable was the fact that the protesters were almost entirely middle school-aged Korean girls.

At first, commentators were befuddled. They were too young to vote; and, this demographic had never been active in politics before.

It turns out that the young girls didn’t organize because of anything they had seen in newspapers. Instead, they were getting their information from the chat room of the mega-popular boy band TVXQ.

It seems that a few articulate teens raised their concerns in the band’s chat room. And since the participants were all likeminded girls that naturally identified with one another, a revolution was born.

They ultimately shamed the South Korean president into apologizing. His Cabinet was fired. And stricter beef guidelines were enacted. All thanks to a few passionate young women who like to chat about which singer in TVXQ was their favorite.

On this Rosh HaShanah, the shofar is calling to us: to be thoughtful and virtuous about how we spend our time online.

How can we justify wasting our time online, when there is so much good that we can use the Internet for instead…so much potential for us to connect with people…not just to chitchat, or game with, or gossip with about the world….but to join together – in healing it instead.

Becoming more mindful about the way that we use the Internet is only the first step toward managing the seductiveness of our screens. To really address the concerns that our phones and computers raise, we have to begin by thinking about unplugging...about actually turning our devices off – to get away from the deafening din of the virtual crowd. We need to do a better job of focusing on the most important people in our lives: the ones who are present, right in front of us.

We know that this is true when it comes to public safety. Did you realize that 2600 people were killed last year because drivers were using phones? And that drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident? The only way to stop the distraction is to turn our devices off in the car.

It’s too late for John Breen to learn that lesson. In 2007, Breen was home in Illinois on leave, about to ship out with his fellow Marines to Afghanistan. Shortly before his departure, he lost control of his truck while texting. He was ejected, falling more than 200 feet away.

His mother, who is seeking to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future, wonders what contributed to John’s lack of judgment in that moment. Was it the feeling of invincibility that comes with being a Marine? Or was it his insatiable desire to plug in, after being offline during his months of training on base?

In the end, the answer doesn’t really matter. The underlying issue – that our screens are menacingly distracting – is the same. And the only way to address it is to have the strength to disconnect.

Now texting while parenting may not be the same kind of life and death situation, but we need to understand that that too is a dangerous that carries its own kind of consequences with it.

How often, in the midst of quality family time have we given in to the urge to check our phones or email? When we whip out our screens, we unwittingly tell our loved ones that our phones are more important than they are. And in doing so, we implicitly give them permission to tune us out during designated quality time as well.

The cycle has to stop. We have a Jewish obligation to minimize the distraction that inevitably comes with checking our screens. The only solution is to establish some device-free parameters in our lives.

Some families might consider establishing parts of their home as being permanently free of screens or devices. Maybe it’s the kitchen or dining room. If loving partners are looking to reignite their intimacy, then maybe it should be the bedroom. Regardless: this first approach would be for us to put some distance between ourselves and our screens in certain parts of the house.

In our tradition, we don’t just establish sacred space. We also sanctify time. For more than 3000 years, we Jews have marked sacred time by observing Shabbat, and setting it apart from the rest of the week. We do this by joining with family and friends to light candles, bless wine, and share special meals.

In that spirit, Judith Shulevitz, in her recent bestselling book The Sabbath World, described Shabbat as “the ancient equivalent of social networking software.” The best part about Shabbat is that it brings us all together.

I can’t think of a better way to establish quality, or holy, time in our homes than by designating some window of time, rather than space, as being device-free. For some families this might be from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, in the spirit of a more traditional Shabbat observance. Alternatively, maybe your family will only power down on Friday night, or during Saturday afternoon. Or maybe it won’t be until Sunday morning. Whatever it is, I would urge us to consider observing a Sabbath of the screen - period of rest…from our devices. All so that we can concentrate on each other instead.

On this day of Rosh HaShanah, the shofar calls us away from the distraction of our homepages and inboxes, so that we might do a better job of focusing on one another. Not so that we can communicate with each other in tweets of 140 characters or less, but in deeper and more meaningful ways…ways that allow us to be truly present with one another, undistracted by the screens that usually surround us.

Living virtuously isn’t just about being mindful of our behavior online, and it isn’t just about unplugging to spend more quality time with the people that matter most. In this day and age, when so much of ourselves is projected online, we have to disconnect, in order to re-connect, with our true and authentic selves.

Robert Brault once observed that “A blogger is constantly looking over his shoulder, for fear that he is not being followed.” Brault isn’t just talking about blogging. We know that we mistakenly derive our self esteem from things like the number of friends we have on facebook, or the number of people who agree with our tweets.

And we’ve become so wrapped up in the details of other people’s online lives, by obsessively following our friends’ hourly status updates, that we have convinced ourselves that if we put down our screens for even a moment, we’ll miss something essential, or be left out. In doing so, we allow our own sense of selves to become linked to the gadgets we carry.

Psychologists have a name for the condition: nomophobia – the absolute fear of being disconnected from one’s mobile phone and the Internet.

The Jewish response to this sickness, which we all suffer from to some degree, is clear: we must unplug periodically in order to shore up our own identities.

Rav Kook, writing in the beginning of the 20th century in the Land of Israel, observed that “The greater the soul, the more it must struggle to find itself. One must have extended solitude – hitbodedut – examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

Reflective solitude. An extraordinary concept.

Maybe it’s only a few minutes a day, or an hour a week. But we need to establish some space in our lives that is just for us. Perhaps it is reading a real, live book, or cooking, or eating, or meditating. Or just plain breathing…in, and out. In…and out. To create some distance between ourselves and the maelstrom of voices, both virtual and real, that distract us every day.

I, myself, have taken up running over the last year, and it has become a highlight of my weekly routine. Even with two young children at home, and with the demands of my job, I have found a way to eke out enough time to run a few days a week.

There are no words to describe how important that experience has become to me: not to worry about email, or stay on top of the latest news. Just time to be…outside, alone, to gain some wider perspective about the things in the world that matter most. I am a happier and healthier person because I have found a way to occasionally unplug, and seek out a sense of solitude, or hitbodedut, instead.

On this Rosh HaShanah in which we strain to hear the sounding of the shofar, we must begin by retreating to a place of quiet. For we shall never be able to hear its call, amidst the clamor of our online lives.

At the start of the last century, T.S. Eliot, reacting to the new technologies that were dominating his era, wrote that people were being “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to navigate the lifestyle changes that came with the inventions of their day – so too are we called upon to respond to our’s.

We recognize the consequences of doing nothing to change our ways. We will only continue to waste more time online. And as a result, the relationships that we hold most dear will suffer. Even worse: we run the risk of forgetting who we are…allowing the crowd online to dictate our sense of self and self worth.

Yet on this Rosh HaShanah, we have an opportunity: to change the way we live! To live more virtuously in this new virtual world.

The shofar’s ringtone calls out to us on this holy day – not as a meek vibration, or as a kitschy pop song. It blares to us as tekiah! It is the sound of our history and our tradition – the sound that we associate with the call to change, and to improve.

It is a call to focus. To focus our online energies on the capacity to do the work of tikkun olam. And to focus, by unplugging, so that we might do a better job of tending to our real friends.

The shofar is also a call to us: to occasionally pull away from the deceptive voices of the online crowd, that we might maintain a sense of who we really are…not just the faux online profile that we have faked ourselves into being. 

The shofar calls us on this New Year’s Day. And it is asking us: “Can you hear me now?”

Shanah Tovah.


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

Click here for an incredible article about life at the 'dawn' of the PC age.

The Road Ahead by Bill Gates - His 1995 prediction of the future.  Do you agree with the criticism here?

What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr - An excellent introduction to some of the challenges our society is facing right now, with an emphasis on the neurological impact of technology.

Time by Eva Hoffman - A delightful poetic meditation on time, with brief sections dealing with technology's impact on the subject.

The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen - An early attempt at comparing the hyperlinked-tendency of the rabbis of the Talmud with contemporary technology.  For a possible glimpse into future uses of technology for Torah study click here.

Judith Shulevitz is fine.  So is Meredith Jacobs.  But if you're going to read one book about Shabbat, then that should definitely be (without question) The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On the question of solitude, and how to seek it out without becoming a hermit (which Judaism does not endorse), there's no better starting point than Thoreau's Walden.

William Powers also calls for a 'Sabbath of Screens' in his book Hamlet's Blackberry, which I enjoyed.

Victoria Miles, daughter of temple members Debby and Todd Buchholz, is a singer-songwriter, and her song "Virtual James" addresses some of the themes in this sermon.  Check out the song here.